Features | Politics | Central Asia

Russia Challenges US Mid-East Role

Russia’s interest in boosting its role in Middle East peace efforts was clear at the Valdai conference. It’s losing faith in US efforts.

The defeat of US President Barack Obama by Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu over the question of West Bank settlements has delivered a shock to the international system.

Netanyahu was able to brush aside Obama’s repeated requests to freeze settlement expansion largely because of the influence of Israel’s friends inside the US political system—an influence which has now been enhanced by the gains of right-wing, pro-Israel Republicans in last month’s US Congressional elections.

Outside of the United States, there’s been widespread amazement and alarm at this latest setback to US Middle East diplomacy—and to Obama personally—which has prompted a rethink of what can realistically be expected from Washington in the coming year to help resolve the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Indeed, there’s a growing tendency in the European Union and Russia to challenge the US monopoly of the Arab-Israeli peace-process, which has proved ineffective, and to demand firm joint action.

Already, 26 former European leaders have sent a letter to EU President Van Rompuy and Vice-President Catherine Ashton calling on the European Union to make comprehensive proposals for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including a clear time-frame and terms of reference.

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This is hardly surprising—if the Arab-Israeli conflict isn’t resolved, and if Israeli expansion at the expense of the Palestinians continues unchecked, there’s widespread fear that Islamic extremism will flourish, and with it, terrorist assaults on Western cities.

Russian impatience with the United States has also become increasingly clear, and was underscored by leading Russian experts at a two-day conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict held in Malta at the weekend. The meeting was attended by a strong contingent of Russian Middle East experts, including former Russian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov; Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Federation’s parliament; Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences; as well as many other officials, ambassadors and journalists. It was also striking how many of these Russians were fluent Arabic speakers.

Several dozen participants from the Arab world, Israel, the United States and Europe also attended the conference, which was organised by the Valdai Discussion Club—an initiative launched by RIA Novosti and the Russian Council for Foreign and Defence Policythat also appears to have the strong backing of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself.

A key theme of the Malta conference was the need to revitalise, expand and give teeth to the Middle East Quartet (the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations), a group that has for too long been overshadowed by the United States.  As most of the participants agreed, the United States’ monopoly of the peace process has yielded nothing and joint action is now necessary.

Arab and Palestinian speakers were dismayed at Obama’s failure in dealing with Israel and expressed the fervent hope that Russia could rescue the peace process.  But, while there was widespread recognition that the era of American dominance had ended, no one seemed ready to propose excluding the United States altogether. Instead, the view was simply that room had to be made for other actors.

Among the ideas floated at the conference were:

·        Since the bilateral track between Israel and the Palestinians had been blocked, it was now time to re-launch multilateral negotiations, bringing in regional actors such as Turkey and Iran.

·        An international conference in Moscow could be the setting to re-launch multilateral negotiations. These could run parallel with the proximity talks that US envoy George Mitchell was now attempting to conduct between Israel and the Palestinians.

·        Another, less ambitious, idea was to summon an urgent meeting of the Quartet to draft specific proposals for a resolution of the conflict, together with a time-frame for implementation.

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·        Also suggested was an expansion of the Quartet into a Sextet, with the inclusion of China and India.

·        A suggestion that was widely welcomed was to replace the ineffective Tony Blair as representative of the Quartet with another international figure, perhaps a Russian.

·        Another urgent need identified was to develop practical ideas for the creation of a Middle East security system. The United States has focused on providing security for Israel alone, often at the expense of the security of its neighbours. It was agreed by many that it’s time to think of building a regional system that provides security for all.

Leading Russian speakers gave credit to Obama for his early even-handed approach to the conflict—perhaps the first US President to be so. But they argued that while he had started well, he had been defeated by the political environment in the United States. They see him as weaker than ever, and believe, frankly, nothing much more could be expected of him.

The Quartet, meanwhile, was described as having been too passive and having left everything to the United States.  It was argued that it should now take the lead in proposing concrete solutions to such key problems as Israel’s final boundaries, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the possibility of establishing the capital of a future Palestinian state in East Jerusalem.  

Russia appears to want a greater say in Middle East peace-making, with many of the Russian delegates noting the country has several useful assets it could bring to the table: it’s a permanent member of the UN Security Council; it enjoys good relations with Arab states and has greatly enhanced its relations with Israel; there are now 80 weekly flights between Moscow and Tel Aviv; and visa requirements between the two countries have been abolished.

But, as several Russian participants insisted, Russia is not all-powerful. They argued that rather than supplanting the United States, Russia could work to revitalise the Quartet, expand its mandate, give it greater powers, and so provide the US with political cover to enable it to join international efforts to curb Israel’s dangerous expansionism.

They also said that Israel had to be persuaded that its long-term future couldn’t be assured by its present policies—it has become too used to an unsustainable culture of impunity and now has to be held accountable for its illegal behaviour.  A number of speakers suggested that Israel should be made fully aware that its conflict with the Arabs has grown into a conflict with the entire Islamic world—an ‘Islamisation’ of the Palestine question is taking place—and if the conflict is allowed to be reframed in religious terms, it will be still more difficult to resolve.

Speaker after speaker at the Malta conference insisted that time was running out—that if nothing is done in the next 12 months, the two-state solution will be dead and the field left open to extremists on both sides. Further instability and violence could be expected as a result, perhaps even another regional war.

The conference ended on a note of pessimism.  No one could see a way out of a situation created by an enfeebled United States, a divided Europe, a passive Arab world obsessed by an alleged threat from Iran, a Palestinian society divided geographically and ideologically, and an unrelenting Israeli government perhaps dreaming of settling the entire territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.

Patrick Seale is a British writer on the Middle East and author of 'The Struggle for Syria' and 'Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East'. He has reported for Reuters and The Observer among other publications.